Teacher unions backing downstate Republicans ‘very rare,’ says researcher

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A ballot drop box in Sangamon County, Illinois Greg Bishop / The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Teachers unions have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to certain Republican candidates’ state legislative primary campaigns, a national trend that can be seen in incumbent state Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, and primary challenger Jim Acklin’s race for the 102nd Illinois House seat.

Acklin received $35,000 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and $68,500 from the Illinois PAC for Education. His campaign has $116,000 cash on hand, according to campaign fund tracker Illinois Sunshine.

“They [the teacher unions] found somebody that will be their puppet candidate,” said Niemerg. “Now they’re spending $400,000 spreading lies and misinformation about me to try and perpetuate their indoctrination of the kids in the classrooms. The people of southeast Illinois are fed up with it and they’re not going to stand for it.”

According to Open Secrets data, the total given to Democrats in the 2021-2022 election cycle from teachers unions’ political action committees is over $4 million. Only $24,000 was given to Republicans nationwide. Sarah Bryner, the Open Secrets director of research and strategy, said it’s very rare you’ll see large sums of money going to Republican primary races.

“By and large they tend to support people who they [the unions] think understand their causes,” said Bryner. “In an election where the general is at play you will see unions getting involved in [Democrat] primaries because that’s where most of the action is because once you get to the general the Democrats are typically already the winner. Typically you’ll just see them supporting Democrats.”

Acklin is a superintendent of Chrisman Schools and ran in 2016 against Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, who currently serves in the 110th Illinois House District. Wilhour’s Republican primary challenger in Tuesday’s election, Matthew Hall, also received $35,000 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and $65,861 from IPACE.

Wihour’s campaign fund has $147,384 cash on hand. Hall’s fund has $210,461.

The Center Square attempted to reach Acklin and Hall. Both did not respond to requests for comment.

In the 102nd House District, there is no candidate on the ballot. Both Niemerg and Acklin are write-ins, but there’s also no Democrat challenger yet. 

“They could slate a Democrat in, but it wouldn’t matter. In my opinion they’ve got one running against me in the primary already,” said Niemerg. 

Reform for Illinois, a non-profit advocating for a more ethical Illinois government, has noticed a lack of competition when it comes to the 2024 primary. Executive Director Alisa Kaplan said the increased polarization could be a contributing factor.

“People and parties have dug their heels in on certain positions so there’s less room for a variety of ideas and positions on issues,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan said her organization, which operates Illinois Sunshine, has noticed Chicago Teachers Union dollars going into the Illinois 20th Senate District race to support kindergarten teacher Graciela Guzman. The fund Gente for Graciela Guzman has $583,155. Guzman recently gained the support of U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

“They’ve put some money behind her [Guzman], nothing like what they had put behind Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign. They are up against the very powerful and deep-pocketed Senate President Don Harmon, who has put over $1.5 million into incumbent state Sen. Natalie Toro’s campaign.”

The campaign fund for Toro, D-Chicago, has $2 million with $1.7 million from the Illinois Senate Democrats Fund.  

Kaplan said the lack of competition could be because of how hard it is to run for office. She said it costs a lot of money to run, specifically in Illinois. Kaplan said the Democratic party has a lot of money to throw behind the candidate of choice.

There are only two Democrat state senate seats that are contested this primary election.

Greg Bishop contributed to this report. 

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